As this difficult, but sporadically uplifting season for Hearts pans out, it is becoming increasingly evident that there are two distinct versions of Gary Locke’s young side.
There’s the one that thrives, generally away from home, when the pressure is off, and then there’s the one that seems to wilt, usually at Tynecastle, whenever burdened with expectation. Where Hearts of past seasons have generally been strong at home and limp away, the current team is a different animal entirely.
Hearts may have taken eight points at home and nine away, but that relative points parity doesn’t give a totally accurate reflection of how things have gone. Six of those home points were ground out in August against Hibs and Aberdeen at a time when Hearts were backed by a buoyant and fired-up home support who turned up full of optimism for the launch of their mission improbable.
Invariably, since then, as the situation became more desperate with regard to keeping alive slender survival hopes, Hearts have found themselves fairly easily swatted aside on home soil, taking only one point from their last eight league games. They have failed to score in seven of those, a record which, perhaps understandably, has taken its toll on the home support. The Hearts fans, to their credit, still turn out in their numbers, but the wall of sound that greeted the team for their first home game of the season against Hibs has long since given way to frustration and narkiness in some quarters.
Certain players have toiled when asked to produce their best form under the pressure of having to impress crowds in excess of 12,000. “There’s a massive expectation here and, even though the other teams are full of senior players, the fans still expect us to beat the likes of Ross County and Inverness at home,” Jamie Walker explained to the Evening News last month. “Sometimes it can be hard to live up to those expectations.”
The first real sign that this Hearts team weren’t quite ready to handle major pressure came at home to St Mirren in what was the first game they were widely “expected” to win. The level of expectation, coupled with the pressure of it being billed as a “must-win” game against a side who were yet to win a game at that point, proved too much for Hearts to handle as they were brushed aside 2-0 by the more street-wise Buddies. That set the tone for the past few months, where Hearts have really struggled at Tynecastle.
It is notable that this Hearts team are far better at soaking up pressure and hitting on the counter-attack – a trait mostly associated with away teams – than they are at dominating games and overpowering them with a high-tempo game, as Hearts sides of the past used to do. Understandably for a defence full of youngsters still learning their trade, the back four often looks particularly vulnerable when the team opens up and tries to attack at home.
By contrast, Hearts have been operating with a certain joie de vivre on their travels. Their points tally may not reflect that, but they have generally been a far more competitive proposition on the road. Aside from the early-season defeats at St Johnstone and Inverness, perhaps the only away game in which they have not played well was at Kilmarnock in October – another of those pesky “must-win” games.
They matched both Ross County and Motherwell in the autumn, taking the lead in both before losing late on, and then won at Hibs, in the League Cup, and Aberdeen with performances which were based predominantly on being solid in defence – and occasionally lucky – and then growing into the game as an attacking force. For an hour, they threatened to take something from Tannadice in December before ultimately succumbing to a late assault from a Dundee United side who were the form team in the league at the time. After defending valiantly in a creditable 2-0 defeat at Celtic, they should have won at St Mirren after bossing much of the game.
Against Hibs in the New Year’s Derby, although pegged back for long periods, they looked dangerous on the counter-attack and at one stage looked the likelier side to nick a winner. In the last two games, at St Johnstone and County, they have collected four points and, backed by a diehard away support who have sung defiantly throughout every demoralising defeat, looked like a side playing with the weight of the world off their shoulders.
It is hard to escape the feeling that this young team, still acclimatising to the mental demands of playing in front of big crowds, would have had a better chance of staying up if all of their 38 games were away from home. The hope for every Hearts fan now is that, with their relegation all but assured, the players feel unburdened and start enjoying themselves at Tynecastle, beginning with tomorrow’s visit of St Mirren.